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Nothing But the Ruth!

How Do You Combat Mental Gremlins?

By Ruth Carter

I have a group of mental gremlins that live in my head. Other people I know call their gremlins “the girls” or “the committee.” These are the voices in my head that tell me I suck at everything. Do you have a name for yours?

When my gremlins get on a roll, my thoughts can snowball quickly out of control. They can start with any topic and then run the gamut within a matter of minutes: “I’m a bad dog parent. I suck as an athlete. I’m a crap lawyer. I never get anything done.” Of course, everything they say is a lie, and thankfully, I know that. But their perpetual negativity is hard to live with at times.

Living with My Gremlins

I suspect every person occasionally deals with their own nagging thoughts of self-doubt. However, living with depression means I have to deal with my personal mental gremlins on a semi-regular basis. It’s part of my disease — just like taking my medication and seeing my therapist. Fortunately, when my mental gremlins are ravaging my thoughts, I know it’s temporary. It doesn’t make me more comfortable in the moment, but I know it won’t last forever. My thoughts feel like they are caught in a riptide of negativity, and I just have to ride it out until they shut up.

I have actually growled “shut up” out loud during one of their episodes — thankfully, not while in the presence of anyone else.

Until these thoughts have run their course, it sucks. I feel sad, insecure, and irritable. I remind myself that what I’m feeling is temporary and that I’ll bounce back in a few days. Until then, I don’t make significant life decisions. Instead, my focus shifts to basic self-care (sleep, healthy eating, exercise) and letting that be enough.

Just Keep Swimming: Tactics for Handling Your Own Mental Gremlins

Of course, my life doesn’t stop just because mental gremlins are wreaking havoc. I still have client work to do and deadlines to meet. On these difficult days, I follow the wisdom I learned from a 12-step program: “Just do the next right thing.”

If I don’t know what the next right thing is in my professional life, I have two places I can look for direction. The first is my Wall of Pain. All of my professional to-do items are color-coded and cover a wall in my office.

The second place is my master to-do list. I recently re-instituted monthly self-meetings, in which I review the last 30 days and plan for at least the next 30 days. During this meeting with myself, I create a list of tasks to be accomplished by the next self-meeting. I keep this master to-do list on my desk at home, and I tape a copy of it to my desk at the firm. If I have no pressing client work, I can always work on these tasks.

During the latest emotional assault from my mental gremlins, I found myself singing in my head the song “Just Keep Swimming” from “Finding Nemo.” It was oddly calming and apropos since my cartoon alter ego when I’m feeling grumpy is Hank the septopus. (He’s an octopus with only seven tentacles.)

I can’t tell you how to best handle your own mental gremlins, but when they act up, just know that they are lying. They will eventually quiet down again. If you are a lawyer who has depression and/or anxiety (you aren’t alone), get the help and support you need. There’s no shame in asking for help.

Related: 5 Steps to Confront Burnout, Addiction and Depression.

Illustration ©

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Ruth Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at and

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